The untapped gold mine hidden in our used cars

| 14th March 2018
Hundreds of tonnes of precious metals needed to develop green technologies are being lost due to a lack of recycling in the vehicle industry. Scientists are urging a change in policy to prevent these much needed materials going to waste, reports CATHERINE HARTE

The critical and scarce metals in our products have increased substantially, and in most cases we only use them once. This must be addressed. 

Vast quantities of scarce metals  worth hundreds of millions of euros are being lost each year due to the lack of incentives for recycling vehicles.

This - coupled with an increase in demand for rare metals for green technologies, such as electric cars, solar cells, LED lighting and wind power - puts pressure on the supply chain and risks causing a strategic and economic problem for the EU.

In 2015 there were an estimated 400 tonnes of gold in Europe’s vehicle fleet, while the vehicles that left the fleet contained in the region of 20 tonnes of gold, none of which was recycled.

Urban mine

Maria Ljunggren Söderman, a researcher at Environmental Systems Analysis at Chalmers University of Technology, is part of  an extensive European research project Prosum, which has now compiled a new database with which to address the problem.

The Urban Mine Platform, the only one of its kind in the world, charts what is known as the urban mine: the metals that are already in circulation and could be recycled from our end-of-life vehicles and electrical and electronic equipment.

Further to carrying out a  survey of the 260 million light-duty vehicles in Europe’s vehicle fleet Ljunggren Söderman noted that the quantities of critical and scarce metals  have increased substantially, and that vehicles also now include many new metals.

She said: "This is mainly because we are constructing increasingly advanced vehicles, with a great deal of electronics, lightweight materials and catalytic converters.

"The increase in the numbers of electric vehicles adds to this development, even though they so far represent a small proportion of the vehicle fleet."

Precious metals

One such example is neodymium, one of the rare earth metals (REM). It is estimated that by 2020 there will be nearly 18,000 tonnes of neodymium in the active vehicle fleet – nine times the amount present in the year 2000.

Gold is another example – and the researchers were surprised by just how vast the quantities of hidden gold in our vehicles actually are.

Ljunggren Söderman says: "Our calculation shows that the quantity of gold in end-of-life vehicles is now in the same order of magnitude as the quantity in electrical and electronic scrap. This is an increase that cannot be ignored."

Very little of the critical and scarce metals in vehicles is recycled because they are spread out in small quantities; in a new car, for example, there may be a gram or two of gold distributed over several tens of components.

No incentive

But while the EU has clear requirements for the recycling of precious metals in electrical and electronic equipment, such stipulations are lacking as regards vehicles.

Ljunggren Söderman said: “There are no requirements or incentives for recycling gold from vehicles, but there are clear economic values here the extent of which people are yet to realise."

She hopes that the research findings will spur on a change: “Automotive manufacturers and the recycling and material industries need to work together to ensure that something happens. It must be possible to do more than at present,  after all  this has been achieved with electrical and electronic equipment."

“Having said that, gold is a comparatively low-hanging fruit, and the prospects for recycling other critical and scarce metals are from both vehicles and electrical and electronic equipment are significantly less favourable.  If we want to alter this, policy changes may be necessary.”

“The critical and scarce metals in our products have increased substantially, and in most cases we only use them once. This must be addressed, especially because these metals are required for many of the sustainable technological solutions that we currently have on the table."

This Author

Catherine Harte is contributing editor of The Ecologist. This story is based on a news release from Chalmers University of Technology.

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